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Squabbling over Questions about Race

Black men dying at the hands of police officers, university students protesting on campuses, presidential candidates bashing minorities – why is race such a big deal in the United States and why are people being shot to death over it?

On a Wednesday evening in September, Columbus police officers were responding to a report of a possible robbery with three suspects, one of them carrying a gun. As the officers pulled up to the scene in a Cleveland suburb, they spotted a group of boys with Tyre King, 13, among them.

The young boy matched the description of the person with a gun.

King, who was black, fled the scene with another boy as the police showed up. During the escape, the teen was reported pulling a gun from the waistband of his pants.

Officer Bryan Mason, who is white, took it as a lethal weapon and fired towards King multiple times.

King died of his wounds later the same night at a Columbus children’s hospital.

At the time of the incident, he was carrying a BB gun, which is a toy gun that shoots small metal pellets. Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther said the gun looks “almost identical” to the 9 mm Glock semi-automatic handguns carried by the city police.

That night Tyre King became the 14th child killed by the police in the United States so far this year.

King died of his wounds later the same night at a Columbus children’s hospital.

According to The Counted, the Guardian’s project to track every person killed by police in 2015 and 2016, over 800 people have been killed this year by the U.S. law enforcement. Of those people, 190 were black and their cause of death was determined as a gunshot. 17 of them were killed in September alone.

According to the most recent data, white people make up around 62 percent of the U.S. population but only about 49 percent of those killed by police. African Americans, however, account for 24 percent of those fatally shot and killed by the police despite comprising just 13 percent of the country’s population. This means, according to the Washington Post, that black Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be fatally shot by police officers than white Americans.

The other side of the story are police officers killed in line of duty. Officer Down Memorial Page reports 94 officers dead this year, 40 of which were killed by gunfire.

Presidential candidate Donald Trump has a strong rhetoric of fear.

King’s incident is much like the death of a 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland Park, Ohio, in 2014. Rice, who was also black, was carrying a pellet gun on a children’s playground. Officer Timothy Loehmann responded to a report saying there was a person “who was probably a juvenile” on a playground walking around with a gun that “was probably a fake.”

As Loehmann pulled up to the park, he instantly opened fire. Tamir’s death spurred the discussion about the disproportionate number of black people dying in the hands of the police.

In both cases, the ”suspects” were children and small for their age. A medical examiner hired by Tyre King’s family said that the boy was only 5ft tall (152 cm) and weighed less than 100 lbs (45 kg).

Still, the officers’ first response to the situation was to use lethal force.

The roots of the tension between U.S. police and the black population go far and deep. In the early 20th century, there were many riots between the black population and the police. In many cases, the police were accused of favoring white people.

In 1968, human rights activist Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee. Riots broke out in over a hundred cities across the country and several people died.

23 years later, in 1991, African-American taxi driver Rodney King became the news of the year after being beaten up by four officers from the Los Angeles Police Department. A witness saw and taped the whole incident and sent the footage to a local TV-station. Later, parts of the footage were aired all around the world, and it raised concerns about the treatment of ethnic minorities in the United States.

The officers, who beat King up, were later charged with use of excessive force. Their supervisory officer was also charged with willfully permitting and failing to take action to stop the unlawful assault.

In the first trial, all of the officers were acquitted. Later, a federal jury returned guilty verdicts against two of the officers for violating King’s civil rights. They were sentenced to 30 months at a federal work camp.

On the day of the first acquittal, the 1992 Los Angeles riots erupted, which eventually claimed the lives of 55 people. The rioting lasted for six days and included looting, arsons, and civil disturbance.

Over 800 people have been killed this year by the U.S. law enforcement.

Lately, the same questions and tensions have received more and more media attention. Docent of American Studies, Dr. Benita Heiskanen from the University of Turku, said the phenomenon is not new, but the mobile devices people are carrying around make reporting these incidents a lot easier.

“Violence in this sense is not new. However, camera phones and social media allow people to film everything and share it with a large group of people fast. That is how these incidents gain so much more attention now compared to before”, she said.

In addition, the political mayhem taking place in the country has brought the issues up on the agenda on a larger scale. According to Heiskanen, for example, presidential candidate Donald Trump has a strong rhetoric of fear. Trump has spoken about minorities as the scapegoats for the problems of the American people and is now facing problems trying to collect votes from them.

In August, Trump stated that he will “stop the slaughter”, referring to the excessive gun violence taking place in the country, and asked bluntly how much more crime would have to occur until African Americans and Latinos would support him. He has not presented any viable solutions to the situation, but instead has just waved around the facts and assured people he will fix the problems by “getting into the infrastructure of the African-American community.”

Lately, Trump has been visiting African-American churches in the hopes of gaining new voters. In a poll released in September, three percent of the black voters preferred Trump, where as 93 percent favored Hillary Clinton.

Ethnicity is a hot topic also on many university and college campuses across the country. It has sparked protests and strikes among exasperated students and faculty members.

The most famous protests took place at the University of Missouri in 2015 and 2016. They started out as a protest against racism on campus and were inspired and led by the student government president Payton Head. Head, who is black, wrote in a public Facebook post that he had been yelled insulting things from a passing truck on campus and that racism was a real problem at the university.

Head’s post gained momentum and initiated a series of events and protests. Eventually, the protests taking place throughout the academic year led to the resignations of the university’s president and chancellor.

Most of the American universities and colleges are taking a stand against racism on campus. Universities are providing students with tools to talk and share their experiences about being in a minority of any kind. Those tools include, for example, the various student newspapers.

Justina Sharp, 18, from Sacramento, California, is the opinion editor at her school newspaper at American River College.

“I feel like it’s my job as Opinion editor of the paper to give people the platform to speak about their experiences”, Sharp, who herself is black, said.

People protested against police violence on August 14, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri. Picture: Jamelle Bouie. Flickr: Creative Commons
People protested against police violence on August 14, 2014, in
Ferguson, Missouri. Picture: Jamelle Bouie. Flickr: Creative Commons

She said she feels safe to talk about issues related to ethnicity and racism on her campus, and thinks that her college is doing well on handling these issues.

“My school has a UNITE Club, which works to host cultural events and encourage not just diversity, but the conversation about diversity on campus”, she said.

Sharp’s boyfriend, 22-year-old Jordan Schauberger, who is white, sees things the same way. Schauberger is the visual editor of the paper where Sharp also works.

Schauberger said he himself can’t comment on things related to minorities, since he does not represent one, but he still feels strongly about the issues because of his girlfriend.

“I strongly believe in equal opportunity for everyone and it makes me sick to see people I love have to enter the world with a disadvantage just because of their skin color”, he said. “It’s obvious that our country has an issue with institutional racism and we need to collectively address the problems that we have.”

He feels very few people actually talk about racism.

Sharp and Schauberger attend the American River College in California. It is a two-year community college which students usually attend before continuing on to attend college somewhere else.

Their college is tackling issues related to racism also with the so-called safe spaces where students can openly talk about the challenges they face as people of color or other minorities. Schauberger feels those kinds of programs are useful but he also has criticism.

“I’m all for people being able to comfortably speak their mind, but there has to be concrete action and change that follows these discussions”, he said.
Sharp thinks along the same lines.

“I haven’t ever taken part in one [safe space meeting], but I believe that if they’re properly done, and allow for a range of experiences, they can be positive”, she said.

Some colleges are battling with the issues more than others. Only recently California State University decided to start offering segregated student housing for black students. Same kind of decisions have also been made at least in three different universities across the country.

Some are calling the arrangement a violation of civil rights, some think of it as a sanctuary. Justina Sharp thought it’s a bit ridiculous.

“I’m still not convinced that that’s not a hoax”, she said and laughed.

In August, Trump stated that he will “stop the slaughter”, referring to the excessive gun violence taking place in the country.

From the faculty’s point of view, Professor Kalle Lyytinen, who teaches management design at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, said diversity is a popular topic of discussion also on his campus.

Lyytinen thinks along the lines of the Finnish researcher Benita Heiskanen, stating that race-related issues have gotten more media attention due to the presidential elections. He thinks that social media and easy video sharing play a key role.

However, in his opinion, racial discrimination at universities across the country is made difficult by laws stating that universities are required to have a certain percentage of students and faculty from certain ethnic groups.

“If they were not to have that, they would be sued very fast”, he said.

Lyytinen, who is also a U.S. citizen, has had to adjust to the American way of speaking about ethnicity and racism. He feels very few people actually talk about racism, on one hand, but he also sees the incidents between the black population and law enforcement, on the other.

“This is a country of conflict in many ways”, he said.

Lyytinen gives an example: in every official form, there is a question about race. One has to fill in a box for their ethnicity depending on whether they are Caucasian (white), black, Hispanic, Native American or other.

“There is a huge Asian population here, but they are not officially recognized. They have to fill in other”, Lyytinen described.

 

Lyytinen mentions the case of Keith Lamont Scott, who was shot by the police in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Sept. 20. Scott’s wife recorded the events taking place in a parking lot with her phone and later released the footage to the media. Her actions prompted the Charlotte police department to release their own footage of the shooting.

Keith L. Scott was a 43-year-old father of seven. According to the New York Times, he worked hard to provide for his loved ones and enjoyed spending time with his family.

The police have another story. Scott spent some time in prison in Texas and had been convicted of a variety of criminal charges over the years. The police say he was waving a gun, which the police found at the scene later. The officials also stated that Scott ignored the commands to drop the gun, before an officer, who is also black, shot him.

Details of the shooting still remain unclear. It has not been confirmed whether Scott was actually holding a gun or not when the officers took action.

One thing is clear, though: the overall situation can only be changed by future generations; Justina Sharp and Jordan Schauberger being a part of that change. Sharp, who also runs a fashion blog, seems to be trying to bring on change herself.

“When I was eleven, this girl I absolutely hated told me I would never be a Hollister model. It felt inwardly devastating to my 11-year-old-self because Hollister was goals”, she told.

“Last year, I joined with Hollister to launch their #AllEqual-anti-bullying campaign with Echosmith, and I was a Hollister model. It was awesome.”

 

Black Lives Matter

  • Black Lives Matter (BLM) is a social movement born in the United States in 2013.
  • The movement was founded after George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, was acquitted in the shooting of an African-American teen Trayvon Martin in Florida. Martin’s death sparked rallies, marches, and protests across the nation.
  • BLM campaigns against violence and systemic racism toward black people. It organizes protests against police brutality.
  • Founders include Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. The movement originally started as a hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter.
  • BLM has a national network of over 30 local chapters. The overall movement, however, is a decentralized network and has no formal leaders.

 

Counting the victims

  • 1146 people were killed by law enforcement officials in the United States in 2015, according to the Counted, a database run by the Guardian.
  • In 2016, the toll has already exceeded over 800 people and is well on its way to the same kind of numbers like last year.
  • 190 of those people were black and died of a gunshot. 28 of them were unarmed.
  • Most of the black people killed are men. There have been nine black women killed this year and all of them have died from a gunshot wound.
  • Nationwide, California has seen the most killings by police officers this year, a total of 119 deaths. It is followed by Texas (68) and Florida (54).

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